Not Cool

Some districts take on the heat with altered schedules, calendars

PHOTO: Klearchos Kapoutsis

With an increasing overlap between back-to-school season and the dog days of summer, some Colorado school districts are taking aggressive steps to address hot classrooms and listless students — including starting the year with shorter days.

But while these scheduling changes may help solve the heat problem, they have implications for a variety of other things, ranging from instructional time to parent work schedules.

In the Poudre School District, which starts today for two grade levels and tomorrow for the rest of the district, elementary and middle school students will be released two hours early for the first two weeks of school. Meanwhile, at the south end of the state, Pueblo City Schools has moved its August start date to September 2 for most schools, largely to avoid the worst of the late summer heat.

Poudre district officials, aware that their early release “heat days” won’t please everyone, have emphasized that it’s a pilot effort that will be re-evaluated this fall.

“We’ve said to our community, ‘We’re trying this out. Come along with us on this journey,’” said Danielle Clark, the district’s director of communications.

Parent Shannon Smith, whose son is in eighth-grade, said, “I understand why they’re doing it, but I don’t know, I think it’s kind of nuts.”

In Pueblo, besides changing the calendar, administrators have met several times over the summer to discuss heat mitigation in case the district gets hit with any scorchers in September. Their plans include creating water stations in school hallways, having custodians arrive early in the morning to let cool air in and rotating students through cooler areas of schools.

“We are taking a very proactive position this year,” said Scott Jones, the district’s director of public relations. “It’s Pueblo….It can get very hot.”

Like many communities across Colorado, both Pueblo and Fort Collins suffered through sweltering heat last August when school started. The high temperature was 99 degrees in Fort Collins on Poudre’s August 20 start day last year and 94 degrees in Pueblo when that district’s students started six days later. The high temperatures stuck around in both districts for the first two weeks of school.

This year, the forecast for the next two weeks is considerably more moderate, with temperatures expected to be in the 70s and 80s in Fort Collins and the 80s and 90s in Pueblo.

Acknowledging the irony, Clark said, “There’s always Murphy’s Law, right?”

Simple question, complicated answer

Bert Huszcza, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Business Officials, said that complications due to hot weather stem from the fact that districts have increasingly pushed their start dates earlier in August.

“A lot of it’s tied into the testing that’s mandated,” he said.

Poudre parent Julie Trombley, whose two daughters are in fifth and eighth grade, is glad that administrators there are addressing the heat issue, but wonders why the district can’t start school after Labor Day or invest in more capital improvements to cool the schools.

“We’ve had a few years of ‘Oh, this is so hot,’” she said. “It just seems like a continuing problem.”

While starting school later in the summer was one of 15 solutions that Poudre’s heat advisory committee considered during 20 hours of meetings last fall, Clark said it was problematic for a variety of reasons. Few committee members wanted to extend the school year into June, delay the end of first semester until after winter break or tinker with instructional time before established state and national testing dates. An altered calendar also created potential mismatches between Poudre’ s vacation calendar and that of Colorado State University, where many district parents are employed.

“It’s a very simple question with a very complicated answer,” she said.

As for the 18 hours of instruction that will be lost to heat days this year, about half  of that time will be recaptured by an additional day of instruction that replaced what was formerly teacher work day. Teachers will decide how to make up the additional time on their own.

Cool it

The impact of heat on Colorado schoolchildren varies widely—and often depends when their schools were built and how subsequent capital improvement funds were allocated.

Huszcza said air conditioning is standard issue in most new schools, but isn’t in older buildings. And while some districts have retrofitted their old buildings with air conditioning systems, it can be costly and difficult.

“You’re talking about facilities where there’s no place to put venting,” he said.

Jefferson County Public Schools, a suburban district with many newer schools, is one of the lucky ones. It has air conditioning in 135 of its 155 schools. Those that don’t have it are all “mountain schools” at elevations above 7,500 feet.

Similarly, Aurora Public Schools also has air conditioning in all 59 schools, Mesa County Valley District 51 has air conditioning or swamp coolers in all 43 schools, and Adams 12 Five Star has air conditioning in all 49 schools.

But other districts, including Denver, Poudre and Pueblo, have many buildings that are neither air-conditioned nor cooled using other systems. In Poudre, only nine of 50 schools have cooling systems.

“That will bring your temperature down but it’s not air-conditioned like your house,” said Clark.

In Denver, where classes start for most students next Monday, 79 of the district’s 187 schools have no air conditioning or only partial air conditioning. All those schools have received portable cooling units this year.

In addition, ventilation systems have been checked to confirm proper air flow, fans are being placed in hallways and classrooms and custodians at those schools may arrive as early as 5 a.m. to let in cool morning air. If the heat gets really bad, individual principals have the option of releasing students early.

Shuffling schedules

While many Poudre parents agree that classrooms were hot and uncomfortable last August, this year’s heat day plan creates hassles of a different sort. For some families, it’s the inconvenience of making alternative child care or pick-up arrangements. For others, it’s the scheduling puzzle of earlier sports practices.

“If I had a K-5 kid I’d be really mad,” said Smith, who works full time.

For a fee, the district’s after-school care program is providing child care in district schools during the two-hour heat day window. While some parents are upset about the early release schedule, Clark said feedback from surveys indicated that parents wanted an established plan, not last-minute announcements about isolated early release days or days off.

For Smith’s 14-year-old son, it’s cross-country practice, not after-school supervision, that will likely pose the biggest challenge during the heat day period. Instead of the usual 2:45 p.m. start time, his coach will hold practice at 6:15 a.m. for the next two weeks.

“He’ll get up at 5 o’clock,” said Smith.

 

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.